During my three enjoyable academic years as RLF Fellow at the University of Lincoln, I shared an office with the previous Fellow, the poet Michael Blackburn. I was inspired by his daily dedication to his craft, which included a new poem each day. As a genre of literature poetry always seemed beyond my remit, but like most wordsmiths I carry a notebook filled with fragments of thoughts, so I wondered if I might attempt to string some of these together. Writing poetry seemed an appealing idea; an expression of feelings and thoughts, given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm. Yet there’s a manifest propensity for making a complete buffoon of one’s self with ill-conceived verse. After a shaky first collection I needed to dig deeper into the genre and find out what I was doing wrong.
For forty years, I have carried a yellowing fragment of a poem in my wallet cut from the Radio Times in 1972. The elegant and astute Arthur Seymour John Tessimond (1902–1962) was an English poet.
He is in love with the land that is always over The next hill and the next, with the bird that is never Caught, with the room beyond the looking-glass. He likes the half-hid, the half-heard, the half-lit, The man in the fog, the road without an ending, Stray pieces of torn words to piece together.
This poem, ‘Portrait of a Romantic’, has sustained my interest in ‘the half-hid’ and led me to publish numerous features and two books on unexplained phenomena and superstition. Yet as ‘the man in the fog’ it would be four decades before I decided to tackle the idea of verse. I needed a toolbox, some guidance, and I thought I’d found it in a Guardian article on October 16 2005, which flagged up the publication of a new book by Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled. Rather than inspire me to ‘have a go’, it almost did the opposite. Both the article and the book ridiculed the kind of free-wheeling verses I was producing. It was all about form and very strict rules. Fry commented: ‘I admire the popular poets of today — Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian Patterson, Don Paterson, Wendy Cope. A lot of these poets write in forms. Carol Ann Duffy uses sonnets, Seamus Heaney has written some of the best sonnets of the past 100 years and also writes in villanelles. Wendy Cope writes in triolets’.
‘Triolets’!? What were they? But absorbing Fry’s scorn was a salutary experience, and I began to wonder if I might not belong to the category of ‘those poor souls who are too incurious, dull-witted or idle to find out what poetry can be.’ So I tried to find out.
Plunging in at the deep end, I read an essay written in 1821 by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, wherein he claimed that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Shelley’s essay is a beautiful piece of writing, but parts of it left me feeling like bricklayer who had been asked to perform brain surgery. For example: ‘A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness: this power arises from within […]’
Clutching my paltry portfolio, I ventured out to poetry slams and tried my work out in ‘open mic’ slots. For safety’s sake I stuck to rhyme and humour. For example, one piece I performed, ‘The Obesity Waltz’, originally written as a song lyric, ended up with me dancing on stage with another poet; it ends thus:
Doctor Atkins is dead But we’re all still here We’re portly and jolly So let’s have one more beer… And let’s do the Obesity Waltz. So, let’s do the Obesity Waltz Yes, let’s dance the Obesity Waltz Let’s have one more pork pie Before we all die Let’s dance the obesity waltz.
Hardly Dylan Thomas, more George Formby, but the crowd loved it. Then a real, award-winning poet, the playwright Kevin Fegan, shocked me. He’d been commissioned by the Arts Council to write a book in verse on the history of the Derbyshire town of Ironville. He asked me if I’d like to co-author the work with him. The limited edition result, Iron in the Blood, came out, shone briefly then vanished. I still didn’t really know what a ‘triolet’ was until another local poet, Clive Brookes, put me right: ‘It’s a poem of eight lines, typically of eight syllables each, rhyming abaaabab and so structured that the first line recurs as the fourth and seventh and the second as the eighth.’ As I’d always been bottom of the class in maths at school, this still seems like rocket science to me.
So I stopped writing poetry for a while until I shared that room at Lincoln with Michael Blackburn. On one occasion we performed together in the student bar. In 2009 I won first prize in a national poetry competition run by the now defunct website www.poetcasting.com. Since then I’ve self-published four volumes of work — yet I’m loathe to promote it. The spectre of Stephen Fry still looms over my shoulder. For some of us, even those who still make a meagre living from other forms of writing, maybe poetry is a bridge too far. Yet it can be enjoyed as a very private pleasure. Dylan Thomas’s ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’ has lines which encapsulate this privacy.
I labour by singing light Not for ambition or bread Or the strut and trade of charms [...]
The hipster son of a musician friend read my work and suggested I try writing hip-hop or rap. He called the genre ‘The greatest lyrical art of the century’. I do not concur. Having no desire to emulate 50 Cent or the Wu Tang Clan, and not wanting to ‘smack my bitch up’ or ‘pop a cap’ in a drive-by shooting, or have my wife dress in gold lamé hot pants, my entry into the Trump-supporting world of Kanye West is on permanent hold.
I’ve discovered that writing a poem is like prospecting for gold. The process often takes place on summer nights, sitting in the garden beneath the stars with a cold beer to hand. I’m searching for something that’s hidden in my psyche, a nugget among the dust of words. The opening lines can be triggered by anything; music, politics, even guilt or grief. Our daughter died of cancer on December 23 2012. I felt guilt about not being able to write about the event until 2014:
I saw her face in the Milky Way Tonight she smiled down from the moon, But I don’t want to write about it. I will not forget her girlish hand Cold, softly gentle as she left us I still hear her final earthly sigh, But I don’t want to write about it.
The difference between poetry and all the other writing I do, especially nonfiction, where you are explaining or expanding upon something already known, is that poetry hides deep down in the lower strata of your intellect, awaiting discovery as some semantic fossil.
So when I’m not clutching a midnight pen in the hope of inspiration, there’s always the additional pleasure of listening to poems in the car. Neruda, Eliot, Blake, Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen, the war poets are all among my numerous driving companions. They stir our emotions, their art every bit as exhilarating as Leonardo, Goya or Van Gogh. But we can’t all be top-class artists.
Although these days I have a very rough idea of what a Petrarchan sonnet is, a Sapphic ode, a ballade, a villanelle or a Spenserian stanza, I’m far too old and worn out to consult the rule book. I apologise for such ignorance. Therefore I’ll let Stephen Fry have the last word here: ‘Generally, we admire the thing we are not’.